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The Right Address

By Bryce Upholt | Photos by Rich Schultz | Courtesy of FarmLife™ / an AGCO® publication

 

A vacation property turns into a dream farm, thanks to a family assist.

The day Art and Judy McMahon first visited Branchville, they assumed they were at the wrong address.

They’d been searching by then for seven years, trekking down the Jersey Shore or up into the Great Appalachian Valley, anywhere within driving distance of their home in Morris County, New Jersey. The couple wanted a vacation property, but they could never find anything quite right.

Then, in mid-2001, Judy reached out to a real estate agent in the highlands of Sussex County. She sent them to a rolling, wooded hillside property where cedar and Russian olive had claimed an old farm field.

“This can’t be it,” Art remembers saying. “This is a beautiful piece of property, and it doesn’t make sense why someone would be selling it at this price.”

But they checked again. The address was correct. Soon, Judy returned with her father, Anthony Cerbo. He gave her two options: “You buy it, or I will.” Cerbo saw something in these 60 acres besides just a weekend retreat; he saw a future farm, and he would know.

Strong Roots

A second-generation farmer, Cerbo had expanded his own father’s 26-acre farm into a local agricultural empire, with farms in three counties. “We were a self-sustaining family,” Judy says. “We had our own livestock as well as vegetable crops. Everything but flour and sugar.”

Judy and Art McMahon check in on one of their Boer goats, a cornerstone of their retirement plan—a farm that generates a little profit and brings the New Jersey couple a lot of joy.

She worked on the farm as a child, and as an adult ran the farm store, even after marrying Art and having their three children.

Art, meanwhile, had found his calling as a carpenter—a career he started as a 22-year-old “on a wing and a prayer,” as he puts it. While he attended Iowa State University, he’d sometimes accompany roommates as they picked berries or corn on their family farms. “And I really enjoyed it because I really enjoy physical work,” Art adds. Art and Judy met through a mutual friend who worked at Judy’s family farm. “It was almost like karma,” he says. “I found someone who shared my vision of living a life on the farm.”

That farm is one they’ve cleared from the 60-acre property in Branchville, which they purchased soon after visiting. A series of family meetings yielded a name: Meadow View Farms.

It’s a fitting name. The acreage slopes up a hill, and from the top, the couple can look down across their fields and meadows and into the Kittatinny Valley. They sometimes like to carry a bottle of wine to the top of that hill—Art and Judy are avid winemakers and have received medals from the American Wine Society—to watch the sunset over their piece of paradise.

A Family Farm

The previous owner was what Art and Judy call a “gentleman farmer.” “No tools, no implements, no barns and certainly no tractors to be found,” Judy says. But Cerbo, Judy’s father, was happy to serve as mentor—to say nothing of laborer and equipment supplier. Shortly after Art and Judy moved in, Cerbo began to spend almost every weekend on the farm, and kept doing so for the next two years.

“We started to brush-hog and chainsaw and cut trees and clear fields out,” Art says, “and carve out under his guidance what would become the farm that we have today.”

It was a family affair: Their sons, Arthur and Bryan, assisted with labor; their daughter, Heather, moved to the farm after graduating from college and began working for the USDA, performing soil tests and examining crops for pests. (She now lives with her husband and three sons on an adjoining property.)

With Heather then living on the farm and helping out, Judy decided to head back to school for her own bachelor’s degree in business administration. She wound up delivering an oral report on Boer goat farming, which sparked the development of the family’s own pasture.

All seemed perfect, but just two years after the McMahons bought the property, Cerbo passed away unexpectedly. It was an emotional loss, but the McMahons had learned enough to keep plugging forward themselves. Soon afterward, they refinanced their mortgage and built themselves a barn.

Balancing Acts

“Leaving the farm is very hard in the morning,” Judy says. “I pull away and say, ‘Why am I leaving here? I really want to be here all day.’ But we have obligations—we have to support ourselves.”

Judy currently works as a legal secretary in the county, but plans to commit to the farm full time within a few years, focusing particularly on the goat herd. A recent grant from USDA allowed the family to install underground-fed water troughs in the goat pasture, set over thermal tubes with thermostatic heaters. They can run all winter without freezing. “We’re ready to grow exponentially,” Art says, noting they usually keep around two dozen goats now, but aim to grow to 100 or more, which they will sell as pets, breeding stock and market animals for food.

Art’s work as a carpenter often requires him to commute back to Morris County, 30 miles away. After a full day, he puts in another four or five hours on the farm.

But the jobs do dovetail, Art finds. Carpentry has taught him to plan ahead. “We don’t just say, ‘OK, we’re going to try and do this.’ We look at it, study the plan,” he says. “And then we’re pretty disciplined. What are the costs going to be? What is it going to net? I think that’s important because you can lose your focus on a large piece of property with a lot of different projects.”

Those projects include an apple orchard, likely 75 years old, which the family may expand into a U-pick operation. There are potential cash crops: pumpkins, maybe, and potatoes to sell to a local vodka distillery. Perhaps a vineyard for their wine.

Within five years, Art expects to turn full time to farming—which, for many, might seem like an overly rigorous retirement plan, especially after so many years of hammering away as a carpenter.

But, as Judy often says, working is Art’s sole vice. “I just enjoy being physical all day,” he says. “Pretty much any waking moment, I’m trying to figure out some other project to do.”